Solicitors can do more to stop divorce papers being bounced back by the court.
Drafting a divorce petition might be seen as one of the simplest activities in a firm’s family team. Often, it is delegated to less-experienced staff – trainee solicitors, paralegals and secretaries. How thoroughly is this work checked before such documents get filed at court?
Years ago, when the courts service introduced a fee for amendment of petitions, my then firm adopted a policy that whoever might draft a petition – even at partner level – had to have it checked by another solicitor. It worked. A common error was that the wording on the marriage certificate was not replicated in the petition. The policy prevented such errors from occurring.
The Bury St Edmunds Divorce Centre has just published, via Resolution, its top 10 reasons for divorce papers being bounced back by the court. These make interesting reading (see box).
In May last year, the courts service said the movement of work from courts to divorce centres highlighted significant issues with errors in the completion of applications for divorce petitions. Nationally, 40% of petitions had to be returned for correction (see tinyurl.com/oqhffch).
Of course, these faulty petitions come from litigants in person – unqualified online outfits too – but a significant proportion comes from solicitors’ firms.
Over the last 12 months, the courts service has been trying to get the error rate down. Last April, it issued a checklist. This, combined with court staff phoning firms instead of returning the paperwork, asking them to authorise corrections and initialling of minor typographical errors, brought down the fail rate to 15%-20%. Now a new version of the checklist is being updated for national release.
Top 10 reasons for divorce papers being returned
1. No fee enclosed
2. Part 2 – Details of marriage incorrect
- Names do not match marriage certificate
- Place of marriage
- Date of marriage
3. Part 3 – Jurisdiction page incomplete and incorrect
4. Part 4 – Other proceedings or arrangements incomplete
5. Part 5 – The facts
- Grounds at part 5 do not match statement of case at part 6
- Two grounds selected
6. Part 6 – Statement of case, insufficient detail or incomplete
7. No marriage certificate received
- No original certificate enclosed
- No translation of certificate
- Only photocopy of certificate enclosed
8. No certificate of reconciliation received from solicitor
9. No fee remission contribution received
10 Part 9 – Service details
- Not complete
- No address for service for all parties
The courts service is also talking to petitioners about which areas of the current petition cause them confusion, potentially leading to the petition’s rejection. This forms part of the exercise to produce a much more user-friendly draft version, with future consultation and input from stakeholders and the Family Procedure Rule Committee.
It is now a year since the launch of the designated Divorce Centre for London and the south-east, based at Bury St Edmunds. The courts service had set an ambitious target of dealing with over 40% of divorce work in England and Wales once the centre was fully operational. The centre aimed to issue broadly 40,000 divorce petitions per year.
Last June, at an event organised by the Law Society’s Family Section, members of the judiciary and senior civil servants explained the changes to the divorce process. They set out how the work was being transferred there from 45 divorce courts on a phased basis and how it would then be dealt with.
We should ask ourselves again: are we, as solicitors, ensuring we check our teams’ divorce drafting and procedure and properly supervising staff?
Tony Roe is principal of Tony Roe Divorce & Family Law Solicitors, Theale, Reading. He is a member of the Law Society’s Family Section and Small Firms Division committees